Match and Set

I’m going to crawl out on a bit of a creaky limb and just say it: Woody Allen’s Match Point is his darkest and strongest film — certainly his most moralistically bitter and ironic — since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I’m not saying it’s as good as Crimes and Misdemeanors, but this mixed-bag drama — somewhat stiff and artificial here and there, and at the same time scalpel-like in its social observations — deals the same kind of cards and has its footing in more or less the same philosophical realm, and it has a finale that absolutely kills.

Match Point costar Emily Mortimer, writer-director Woody Allen, and costar Scarlett Johansson at this morning’s press conference inside the Grand Palais — Thursday, 5.12.05, 11:05 am.

I’m speaking of one the neatest twist endings I’ve ever seen in a film involving a murder and police inquiries and all that. It’s so clever and surprising that several people in the audience were clapping. I spoke to Roger Ebert about this in the press conference room right after the screening and he said Cannes audiences often clap for this and that, so maybe this isn’t a big deal. But it got me, I can tell you.
What’s special about it is that the nature of the twist ties in with what Match Point is basically saying, which is that life has no moral discipline or scheme, and that much of what happens to us is about sheer dumb luck.
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Set in present-day England (mostly London) and funded by BBC Films, Match Point is a jaded moral tale by way of A Place in the Sun and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
It’s about a young teacher of tennis skills (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who relationships his way into an upper-crust English family by way of one of his male students, a cheerful smoothie named Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). He is soon romancing and then marrying Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), but almost-as-quickly becomes involved with Tom’s fianc√É∆í√Ǭ©, a struggling American actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson).
The story essentially turns on the matter of Nola becoming pregnant and insisting that Rhys-Meyer’s character, who’s called Chris Wilton, leave his wife for her, and how Chris deals with the pressure of this.

Mortimer, Allen, Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers facing the cameras before the start of this morning’s press conference — Thursday, 5.12.05, 11:02 am.

Rhys-Meyers handles his part skillfully and with exactly the right balance between terrible, gut-wrenching guilt and the suggestion of a sociopathic undercurrent. But it’s Johansson, far and away, who gives the finest performance. She seems in possession of a fierce, almost Brando-esque naturalism here. She grabs Allen’s dialogue by the shirt collar and slaps it around.
Why a creaky limb? Because Match Point plays a bit awkwardly from time to time. The dialogue feels a bit pat and coy and even a touch antiquated (are there any present-day Londoners who rely on rooftop TV antennas for their tellies?), and certain aspects of the plot feel contrived.
It’s not a totally artificial piece, but it’s certainly mannered and tidied up. It doesn’t feel taken from life as much as concocted and then imposed.
I don’t know how much of an “uh-oh” this will turn out to be. Maybe it won’t be one. Ebert said he feels it’s Allen’s best film in years. A Los Angeles-based journalist friend, however, just told me a little while ago she didn’t care for it at all.
There’s no question that Allen’s writing isn’t as sharp as he used to be, and that his films since the mid ’90s have been feeling more and more mannered and sealed-off and…oh, let’s just say it and be done with it. The term is old-fogeyish.

Journalist pour into the Grand Palais this morning prior to this morning’s screening of Match Point — Thursday,5.12.05, 8:05 am.

It’s become tiresome to me, to name one example, that Allen’s stories and characters are almost always planted in a world of affluence and cultivation and luxurious distractions.
It wasn’t always this way. The worlds of Annie Hall and Manhattan are Allen-esque, but they also reflect to some extent the pulse and character of urban life as it was in the late ’70s. By the same token, it’s pretty hard to argue that Match Point, Melinda and Melinda and Anything Else are any kind of representations of life as it is lived and grappled with by GenX and GenY types in the 21st Century.
To be perfectly frank, Allen’s fatigued manner at the press conference (due to jet lag, I presume), his occasionally meandering reactions to questions and his being so hard of hearing that he asked moderator Heni Behar to repeat each question to him….all this suggested he’s not the on-top-of-it guy he used to be.
On the other hand, he got a huge laugh when he pretended not to know who Michael Bay was. His exact line was “Michael who?”
I asked him to riff about similarities between Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and he said he didn’t see them as similar at all. “But I may not be right,” he added, “and what you are seeing, and what others may be seeing, may be valid.”

Photographers in front of the dais before the start of this morning’s Match Point press conference.

I loved Allen’s reason for making a new movie each year. He said making a new film (a process that takes a full year, all in) is a magnificent distraction that keeps him from lethargy and feeling depressed and other dark tendencies, which would swallow him up, he believes, if he didn’t have this to distract him.
I’ve said this over and over, but generally speaking a Woody Allen film with some problems here and there is usually much better than a typical Hollywood thing. And Match Point makes a very sharp and coordinated philosophical point, and it ties it all together with great cleverness at the finish, so…
The odd thing is that it doesn’t have a U.S. distributor….yet. The IMDB says the foreign openings will happen in the fall.
Kate Winslet was originally cast in Johansson’s role, but she bailed for some undisclosed reason. Allen disclosed that he’ll be shooting another film in England this summer — a comedy — and that Johansson will again be starring. Allen will also play a role in it, he said.

Cote d’Azurred

Here we are again, Cannes-ing around and dropping pounds from all the walking up and down the Croisette with my black computer bag around my shoulder and saying “hey” to all the (mostly) smiling journalists and publicists who say “hey!” or “hello, Jeffrey!”…the usual traipsing-around bon ami stuff.
The festival’s lineup looks pretty good this year. I don’t even know where to begin, but there’s James Marsh’s The King, David Cronenberg’s The History of Violence, Johnnie To’s Election, Woody Allen’s Match Point , Lars von Trier’sManderlay, Martha Fiennes’ Chromophobia and Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven.

Facing le plage and all that, sometime in the late afternoon on Tuesday, 5.10.05.

Plus Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, a special screening of Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares, Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking , Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies…and I’m only scratching the surface here. Plus whatever discoveries happen to pop up.
I’m hearing intriguing things about Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which press-screens on Friday at 1 pm. I’ll probably post a review a few hours later…that is, unless the wait for a computer in the press room is impossible, and/or if the Wi-Fi in the wireless cafe isn’t screwing up again.
KKBB stars Robert Downey and Val Kilmer, and is said to be about the intrigues of a thief on the run auditioning for a part in a detective film.
Black’s hard-hitting action screenplays (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight) had him on top in the late ’80s to mid ’90s, but then he seemed to go into an eclipse. No matter — everyone loves a comeback.
The first significant thing I did after arriving at the Cannes Film Festival was to blow off Lemming, the opening-night film by Dominik Moll. (The press screening, I mean, which showed this morning at 10:30.)

Not very thorough or engaging of me, obviously, but I had the usual logistical crap to contend with (behind on today’s column, wi-fi connection problems in the press room) and I don’t trust opening-night films anyway. They always seem to be a bit off and under-nourished in some way.
This was my half-assed rationale, in any event. For what it’s worth, I was assured by a Canadian journalist who sat down near me in the press room after the film broke that missing it wasn’t a tragedy.
I felt badly anyway because it meant missing Charlotte Rampling as one of the leads, and because I was moderately intrigued with Moll’s last film ( With a Friend Like Harry , a.k.a., Harry Is Here to Help), a dry, perverse thriller about a manipulative creep who throws a married couple’s life into chaos.
I might have gone anyway if it hadn’t been for the official program describing it as being about “the bursting of irrationality into a hitherto orderly life.”

Toronto critic Bruce Kirkland (far left), Sperling Reich and two guys whose names I’ve forgotten (plus some bearded guy I’ve never met…and I don’t want to) at La Pizza, a very nifty restaurant near the harbor — Tuesday, 5.10.05, 10:35 pm.

And if that damn wi-fi hadn’t given me so much trouble. One of the tech guys said there were too many computers using it and the system couldn’t handle it. They made a hurried call early this afternoon for an upgrade.
Apparently the 20th Century Fox people are throwing some kind of floating bash late Saturday night for Star Wars: Episode 3 — Revenge of the Sith, which will screen at the Grand Palais that night.
If so, that’s (probably) one event I won’t be going to, given my recent postings about this last and final episode. I guess I can always try and wangle an invite regardless.

Tomorrow morning’s big screening is Allen’s Match Point. It’s a tragedy, and Allen’s first film shot on foreign shores (i.e., England). It stars Scarlet Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton.
Set among the upper-class (Woody never does down and dirty), it’s “about a young man’s rise in society and the terrible consequences of his ambition,” the program says. “The protagonist is torn between two women and finding no way out, resorts to extreme action.”
It’s 8 pm — time to speed-walk down to the press room again and have another go at throwing this thing together. If those wi-fi gremlins act up again…


I saw Monster-in-Law for the second time last week (in Manhattan, at a large theatre near Lincoln Center) because I wanted to see it with a crowd.
I knew it wasn’t all that laugh-out-loud funny; all it is, at most, is amusing. But it scored with the New Yorkers. The room wasn’t rocking exactly, but I didn’t get an after-vibe that anyone felt burned, and there were a fair number of journos there.
I’m saying this because there seems to be a disconnect between front-line critics and average Joe’s, based on some of the pans I’ve read so far. Maybe I’m getting soft but I gave it a pass. It’s aimed at women and relatively square ones at that, but it’s spritzy and determined and reasonably well arranged, like a nice vase of flowers.
To say I wasn’t doubled over in pain sounds like a knock, but guys like me aren’t supposed to get high off films like this.

It has Jane Fonda, at least, and it’s nice to say that after a 14-year absence (her last role was in 1991’s Stanley and Iris) she hasn’t lost any of that verve and pizazz. She’s a gusto machine in this thing, and her comic timing and willingness to not only act but, at times, look totally unhinged gives Monster-in-Law the kind of crazy energy that farces need to stay afloat.
I know, I know…afloat isn’t the same thing as tearing across the bay with an outboard motor.
Why isn’t it better? It’s not real. It never quite touches the bottom of the pool. It’s all about bitchery and cat-fighting and smoldering rage, and a lot of half-baked characters banging into each other and doing and saying things that I wouldn’t dream of saying or doing if I were them. I called it spritzy but a better description is high-strung, and that can feel tiresome after a while. In all candor, I didn’t believe any part of it…not really.
What’s good about Monster-in-Law then (besides Fonda’s performance)?
The what-the-hell attitude. It doesn’t care that it’s second-tier. It plows ahead regardless and scores in a spirited way from time to time, and never quite deflates. And then it ends with a great Stevie Wonder song, “For Once In My Life,” which doesn’t precisely fit or feed off what’s happened in the film, but it put me in a good mood and what’s the difference anyway?
Fonda is Viola Fields, a rich, high-powered TV talk-show host who’s just been canned for being too old (her producers are after a younger demographic), and is feeling semi-hysterical and off-balance.

Viola is the kind of driven personality who needs a big project or challenge in her life to feel whole, and so she decides, with nothing else on the horizon, to derail the engagement of her beloved twentysomething doctor son Kevin (Michael Vartan) to a sweet and considerate young woman (Jennifer Lopez) whom Fonda doesn’t feel is good enough for him because she works as a temp and a dog-walker and nightclub waitress.
That’s the whole film, basically — Fonda trying to screw things up for these two, and her assistant (Wanda Sykes) clucking and shaking her head but pretty much standing aside and taking the path of least resistance. And then Lopez fights back and gives Fonda a taste of her own maliciousness, and finally Fonda comes to her senses and backs off and things suddenly turn alpha and embracing.
I didn’t believe that a woman of Viola’s smarts and accomplishments would freak this heavily just because her son decides to marry beneath his station. Her neurosis feels like a slapstick construction. In any case, she wouldn’t be this blatant about it. She’s a professional politican, after all.
I didn’t buy anything about the doctor at all. It’s conceivable that a guy with a domineering mom might be attracted to a woman on the opposite end of the spectrum, but J.Lo `s character isn’t that much of a pushover. She’s a level-headed, stand-her-ground type.
Of course, young doctors rarely marry women who don’t have some kind of pedigree, but we’ll let that one slide. What I really couldn’t swallow was how Vartan keeps telling Lopez that his mom is stable and considerate and thinks Lopez is terrific, all indications to the contrary. He’s supposed to be exceptionally bright and mature, but the film keeps making him into one of the dumbest Dr. Kildare’s in history.

And that he would have been in a previous relationship with Fiona (Monet Mazur), a scheming, icy-hearted blonde and a totally empty glass…a non-character thrown in just to spoil things, and to make J. Lo look good.
Everyone has too much money in this thing. I hate movies in which everyone has everything they need and they never sweat a mortgage payment.
I didn’t believe J. Lo could afford the apartment she lives in — way too big and well decorated and nicely furnished for a struggling 20-something. Dr. Vartan is presumed to have a healthy income and all, but the king-sized, two-floor bungalow he lives in is far too pricey-looking. It’s the kind of thing a well-to-do guy in his 40s or a hip-hop mogul could afford, but not some guy only a few years out of medical school.
So go to Monster-in-Law if you’re looking for a nice layback deal that will irritate you if and when you give it any serious thought…so don’t.

Sith Stuff

“I’m a long-time reader of your column (since Mr. Showbiz days!) and a film critic (for a Montreal alt-weekly) myself, and an indie filmmaker. I read your piece on “Revenge of the Sith” yesterday and I wanted to share my reactions to it, as I felt very much the same way you did.
“What I basically told my friends was `don’t expect any miracles.’ Most of my pals — all in their late 20s or thereabouts and thus very much of the Star Wars generation — felt the way I did about the first two prequels, which is that they were complete pieces of shit, through and through…almost bafflingly bad.
“And yet…and yet we were all kinda sucked in by the Sith trailer, which, having seen the actual movie, I can say is probably the best piece of filmmaking to come out of the whole prequel fiasco.

“That’s one good trailer: light-saber battles, Wookies, lava, Darth Vader, that music. But the movie itself, while probably the best of the three (and what’s that saying?) suffers from basically the same problems as the other two. I found it impossible to invest myself at all in what was happening onscreen. I just don’t care about these characters.
“As the movie progressed and we got closer to the stuff I was invested in, at least once (Luke and Leia, Vader, all that stuff), I found myself slightly, very slightly more drawn in. But too little, too late. Which is what I’d say about Revenge of the Sith in its entirety, actually.
“I found myself a little sad and contemplative after the screening. I couldn’t help but thinking how much better the prequels would’ve been if Lucas had started the series with Anakin around the same age as Luke was in the first Star Wars, If Anakin’s character arc had mirrored Luke’s over the series — with the exception that Anakin makes the wrong choice at the crucial moment — think of how much more resonance the series would have had! The tragic parallels!
“Oh well, it’s all over now, and for the best, I suppose. Lucas has chosen to make the films feel trivial, not resonant, and that’s his choice. Incidentally–when I first saw the SW series I was just a kid, but I felt that Vader and the emperor were scary bad guys –real avatars of EVIL. In the prequels, they seem less like terrifying monsters and more like, well, dicks.
“Anyway, thanks for the fine article.” — Name withheld upon request.

“Thanks for the review on Sith. Yours is the last I’m reading until actually seeing the movie and I kinda figured you wouldn’t like it.
“Like you (and like everybody, really), I think The Empire Strikes Back was the be-all, end-all to this series and I think it is Lucas’ cold dissociation with human beings and real life that has caused the prequels to be closer to fetish objects than actual, you know, movies.
“And believe me, I buy his `galaxy far, far away’ hokum hook, line and sinker, but I totally appreciate and value your point of view. I have come to accept my own mental blocks (or maybe, mental deficiencies) for loving this series of movies. It’s hard not to be
enamoured with this stuff if you saw it when you were five years old. Ah, the power of nostalgia.
“Lucas may have left the building, but I still think he has it in him to make one great movie before he dies … he just needs to suck it up and hire an actual writer and maybe needs someone like Scott Rudin to push him around as a producer.” — Joey Santos
“Your review of Revenge of the Sith was one of the worst, most unprofessional reviews of a movie I’ve read in a long while.
“It’s obvious you have some sort of agenda because half the review you rake Lucas over the proverbial coals. You don’t really offer any critique of the movie other than the stock critiques that everyone likes to spout like mentioning the bad acting and over-reliance on CGI.
“It’s also obvious that I’m a fan of these and I can take a negative review but only one that actually critiques the film.
“Why even mention the Kevin Smith review? Do you have some lingering issues with your former employee or something? The showing was 40 minutes late and people got up when the credits started rolling? Who cares? What does that have to do with the movie?
“There was no buzz or `current’ in the room? Again, who cares?
“So congratulations — you’ve written a totally asinine negative review of Revenge of the Sith, and you’ve subverted pop culture with your superior film intellect. Unreal.” — Tom

Wells to Tom: Sorry, man, but I didn’t want to be too specific. I didn’t want to give anything away in any detail. I felt it was a little early to do that.
“Thanks so much for cutting through all the bullshit hype with your Star Wars: Episode III review. (I started to worry about you when you said how jazzed you were to be seeing it. All of the mainstream critics who’ve reviewed it have essentially been telling the fanboys what they’ve wanted to hear, that it’s the Star Wars movie they’ve been waiting for, blah blah blah.
“I never believed it for a second, and I’m not even as big a hater as you. I actually — gulp — liked Return of the Jedi (the most-watched movie of my childhood, without a doubt), and I even found things about Episode I to enjoy. But Episode II was the jumping-off point for me – a boring, turgid piece of crap that had me realizing that the prequel trilogy was an irrevocable failure.
Sith could be the greatest thing ever to happen to Star Wars, and it still wouldn’t redeem the trilogy as a whole.
“So naturally, I’ve been rolling my eyes ever since I saw the trailers and heard people saying that this was going to be the one (when are people going to realize that trailers don’t indicate a film’s quality, only the editing skills of the marketing team?). I knew that once you’d finally seen the film, you’d be a voice of reason amidst the marketing crap. Thanks for keeping it real.” — Mark Van Hook, Boston, Mass.